L.A. at Home

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Category: Global Garden

Huauzontle, a Mexican staple in L.A. edible gardens

Huauzontle detail
You can find huauzontle in the produce section of large supermarkets throughout Mexico, the bunches of thin stalks topped with hundreds of green flower buds. The sprigs are best blanched, tied in a bundle, wrapped with Oaxacan string cheese and dipped in an egg-flour-water batter for deep-frying like chile rellenos. You don’t need a fork. You eat it like a crispy vegetarian hot dog on a stick, drizzled with a simple tomato sauce.

Which explains why gardeners here are growing their own huauzontle. Although the plant's cousin, lambsquarters (Chenopodium albun), is considered an invasive weed by many, huauzontle (Chenopodium berlandieri, subspecies nuttalliae) is semi-domesticated.


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Papalo in the garden: A wild 'summer cilantro'

Papalo detailThanks to its tolerance for heat, this garden green is sometimes called "summer cilantro." Bolivian coriander is another name, although it’s not at all related to that herb. No, this plant -- papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) -- is actually part of the daisy family and originated in South America, predating the arrival of Asian coriander by thousands of years.

Papalo is a type of quelite, the wild greens of Meso-America, and it's popular among the Quechua of Bolivia as well as the people of southern Mexico. In restaurants in Puebla state, it’s common to find a sprig of papalo stuck in a vase on the table, next to the salt, pepper and salsas -- ready to be added raw to soups, tacos, tortas or beans.

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Lambsquarters: Weed harvested as wild food

Lambsquarters leavesLambsquarters (Chenopodium album) is such a common weed that it’s vanished into the visual background, invisible by its ubiquitousness. Humans ate it before the Stone Age, and modern-day foragers seek it out for its taste, abundance and usefulness. But it is an invasive plant that not all  gardeners want in their space, explaining why common names vary from Allgood and Baconweed to Dirtweed.

Spring is the best time for collecting wild lambsquarters, but you can eat it as a backyard crop through the summer. The plant prefers partial sun or shade, and with a little water and almost no care, it will thrive. One purple-tinged variety called giant goosefoot (Chenopodium gigantium) is easily available in seed form as Magentaspreen. In the garden it grows far more easily than spinach (a close relative) and can get 6 feet high. It’s sometimes called tree spinach, with good reason.

This is a fast-growing, cut-and-come-again vegetable that can be harvested within a month of sowing. It's a nitrogen fixer, improving the soil. But more important, you can pick off the tenderest leaves from the top and sides, blanch them briefly in water to remove the oxalic acid and use them just like spinach, kale or collard greens.

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Grow your own chipilín for tamales, pupusas

Chipilin detailThere’s a secret to sprouting the notoriously difficult chipilín seed. Los Angeles gardener Victor Diego says the best approach is to put the seed in an oven’s warming tray for a week. Let it dry. Then plant.

“It will open,” he promised.

Chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata) has been called one of the most important edible leaves used by humans globally. Native to southern Mexico and Central America, it's used in tamale masa, soups, omelets and pupusas. It has the flavor of watercress or sour clover mixed with spinach -- a flavor improved by cooking (which explains why it's not usually eaten raw). Besides being a staple in cooking, it’s a nitrogen-fixer, helping to enrich soil. And it makes a decent licuado, the Latin American equivalent of a smoothie.

But chipilín also grows like a weed, popping up in abandoned places. Frank Mangan, a professor in the department of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts, is overseeing a research project focusing on immigrant populations and the crops they grow. For his group of farmers growing chipilín, he had to get the seed approved for importation from El Salvador by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s considered an invasive plant, and it's banned in Australia and Hawaii, where it has gained a toehold. Mangan's project allows for sale of the crop -- at $4 a pound -- and he said the farmers can’t grow it fast enough.

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Mulberry trees: A race with squirrels for sweet fruit

Mulberry detail
On the wall of Majid Jahanbin’s office at Paradise Nursery in Chatsworth hang photos of long, fat mulberries lined up with tape measures to show their size -- a gardener’s equivalent of big game trophies. The juicy berries from the Pakistani-Afghan mulberry tree, his biggest seller, can reach more than 3.5 inches.

Mulberry Kris TopazMost mulberries ripen in spring, and by now most growers have either collected the short-lived fruit or seen it get eaten by squirrels. For Kris Topaz, it’s the latter. Shortly after listing her 11-year old mulberry tree as ready for picking on the Altadena RIPE harvest-sharing website, she removed the offer. The squirrels had arrived first.

“This is the first year I had a problem,” she said. “New mulberries ripen everyday, so for about six weeks I would have four cups of them a day if it’s a good year. They’re very sweet and don’t have seeds, so they’re heavenly. But now the squirrels come every day and have lunch on the new ones.”

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Shade-loving edible: yuki-no-shita, a.k.a. strawberry begonia

Yuki-no-shitaIn Janice Kubo’s backyard garden in West Covina, she has dedicated part of the space to edibles from her native Japan. Some, such as the Japanese mikan (tangerine) and shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) are familiar. But the bed of a ground cover that looks like begonia is not an obvious edible. It’s yuki-no-shita, which translates to "under the snow,” a plant whose slightly furry, scalloped leaves are eaten raw or cooked in dishes such as tempura.

This fast-spreading ground cover (Saxifraga stolonifera) is commonly called strawberry geranium or strawberry begonia, although it’s not related to strawberries, geraniums or begonias.

“As a child we always had it in the garden but we didn’t eat it then as much as we do now,” said Kubo, whose mitsuba we featured last week. She added that some people believe that yuki-no-shita has medicinal properties. Extracts made from yuki-no-shita and related plants are used in skin conditioning creams that promise to smooth wrinkles and improve skin color, as well as in concealers, foundation and other cosmetics.

As the Japanese name suggests, this plant is pretty low maintenance. It likes shady and moist locations and tolerates frosts. It’s often sold as a houseplant, bought for its cascades of flowers, but it does its best outdoors, thriving vigorously for years if maintained. In the 1970s and '80s, saxifrages were a trendy plant for landscapers to use for dark garden spots. In late spring and into summer, the plants send out tall clustered blooms -- white, red and all hues in between.

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Mitsuba, a Japanese edible grown for so many reasons

Janice Kubo with her mitsubaFor Janice Kubo of West Covina, one garden essential is mitsuba, also called wild Japanese parsley (Cryptotaenia japonica). It looks like a flat-leaf parsley but is more like shiso, the Asian herb with a clean, wild flavor and few substitutes. The taste of mitsuba is chervil-meets-celery leaf.

All parts of the plant — seeds, flowers, roots — are edible, but the leaves are most commonly used. The name mitsuba means “three leaves” in Japanese, a reference to the way foliage appears in stems. The leaves can become bitter if cooked too long, so they are added as a garnish in miso soup, on top of rice bowl dishes or with stir-fry. They are put raw in salads or sushi.

Kubo was born in Chigasaki, within sight of Mt. Fuji in Japan, and mixed in with her Mexican primrose and chayote, her sunchokes and her tomatoes, are plants that reflect her culinary heritage. Kubo has 14 raised beds — nearly 100 edibles in all, from herbs to trees. An animator and graphics artist by training, she became an urban farmer by necessity, finding home-grown organic produce to be a solution for her son’s multiple food allergies (engagingly documented on her blog). The family gets 90% of its produce from the backyard.

Kubo got her first mitsuba plants in the produce section of her grocery. Mitsuba are shipped “live” with their roots encased in a foam medium to retain freshness. She and her mom replaced the foam with dirt and grew out those first plants to collect seeds. You can also find seeds or seedlings at Tabuchi Nursery, (310) 478-8338, or Hashimoto Nursery, (310) 473-6232, which are within a block of each other on Sawtelle Avenue in West L.A.

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Buddha's hand citron: like lemon, but zestier

OBuddhas headne of the most exotic-looking items in high-end produce departments is Buddha’s hand citron, a palm-sized fruit that sells for as much as $10. It’s a steep price to pay for something with no juice, no pulpy flesh and just a mild-tasting white pith. The appeal here is all in the highly aromatic rind: The fingers of the fruit can deliver eight times the surface area for zest compared with other citrus.

Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica) is thought to have originated in India or China, but it's ideally suited to Southern California's climate -- a fact noted more than 100 years ago by B.M. Lelong, the secretary of the state Board of Horticulture, who included a recipe for brined candied fruit in his 1888 report.

Only now is Buddha's head starting to catch on, with commercial growers as well as with rare fruit fans. Marsha Fowler, a member of California Rare Fruit Growers in Altadena, says it’s ideal for putting in the frontyard because most people don’t know how to use the fruit, so it doesn’t get picked by passersby. She put in one plant a few years ago after a chef introduced it to her and enjoyed it so much, getting fruit in two years, that she got two more.

“Anything you can use lemon peel for, you can use this,” she said. “It has multiple culinary uses, savory and sweet. It pairs well with lavender and basil. In a crème brûlée or the crust of a cream pie, it’s exquisite.”

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Growing passion fruit: It's easy if you can beat the bugs

Passion fruit vinePassion fruit vines have been threaded on a chain-link fence between the Fountain Avenue Community Garden and the school next door. For about two years, the plant’s growth was lackluster. But once its roots got established, the vine exploded with, well, a passion. Now it’s up in the pine tree over the garden and is spreading around the corner, covering at least 50 feet of chain link.

“We plan to have crawling vines, a wall of green, all around the garden,” gardener Charlene Gawa said. This winter the plant was loaded with fruit, but gardeners couldn’t enjoy the harvest. Schoolkids picked the fruit, usually when it was still green (even though it won't ripen when off the vine).

Considered a pest by some and even banned in some community gardens, passion fruit comes in more than 500 varieties. Originating in Paraguay, Brazil and parts of Argentina, passion fruit is grown throughout the tropics now. Its juice is used in processed drinks, but it’s best enjoyed raw: guava-like flavor, flowery bouquet and custardy texture that creates a jelly-like umami moment that would seem impossible to duplicate. For added effect, chew the crunchy seeds.

“We would just go up into the mountains [of Honduras] and pick them and they were quite sweet,” said Jamie Inashima, staff member and resident bug expert at Sunset Nursery. “We’d crack them open like eggs and suck out the inside.”

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Foxglove: hummingbirds' and bees' best friend

Foxglove flower purpleIn the herb section of Fountain Avenue Community Garden, one plant jumps out: It rises a couple of feet high and boasts a cascade of purple blooms, the throat of each open flower sprinkled with distinctive dark spots. The foxgloves are in bloom.

They’re spectacular now in the early morning but more dramatic at night seen under a black light, gardener Derbeh Vance says. “They’re fluorescent,” he says. “Bees see in ultraviolet light, and it’s like a landing strip for them.”

Charlene Gawa, the gardener who oversees the herb garden, laughs when asked if the plant is edible. “This is the second year, so it’s really potent,” she says. “It’s a stimulant and your heart will run. It’s good if you want to kill someone.”

She planted the flower for its ability to attract hummingbirds and bees. Native to the Mediterranean, North Africa, Europe and western Asia, Foxglove has a host of evocative names, particularly in English: dead men’s bells, bloody fingers, witches’ gloves, fairy caps. It’s toxic but medically helpful, used to make the heart medicine digitalis. It spreads like a weed, thriving on granite and rocky landscapes, and was once thought to be planted by fairies, popping up in any recently broken land.

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